2011 Essay/Memoir Contest: 1st place
Published: June 18, 2012
David Joshua Jennings
Dear Jack Kerouac
by David Joshua Jennings
I am lost. For a long time I have been mentally and physically lost, and now, because of you, there is a pistol aimed at me.
It is a carbon-gray 9 mm and the driver of this station wagon is pointing the muzzle at my chest. In between his legs sloshes a half-empty beer can.
Like a black hole the gun creates a space that sucks everything around it inside. The driver shouts at me in Black Sea Turkish. He tells me to give him 100 lira or he will shoot me.
I blame you for this, Jack, because when I was 16 in Oklahoma and the wish to be somewhere else was on me, I discovered, as an unusually dreamy teenager, On the Road.
Fiddling faster over the already trembling strings of what my imagination wrongly projected the world beyond Oklahoma to be like, you told me that there were sacred things to be discovered out on the open highway. And I believed you.
The way you spoke of Mexico had me, as a high school student, traveling down there, toppling through the doors that alcohol kicks open.
Because of you I left university at 21 to search for those things you spoke of, things I assumed were not absorbable in university.
Five years have passed since then. Many things have come and gone, and I’ve seen a great deal. I’ve thumbed down over 200 rides, and slept in ditches and by rivers and out in open fields. I’ve seen much of the world, more than 50 countries, and I’ve made friends, and I’ve made enemies, and I’ve fallen in and out of love and had my heart mangled and mangled hearts, and suffered one Pyrrhic revelation after another.
Jack, there are certain experiences that so alienate us from society as to make it impossible to fit back in. The resulting solitude, as you know, is juggernautic. And it is easy to reach for the bottle like you did. An opened mind is often a lonely mind, and when there is no one to guide you—and there never is—one looks for anything to relieve the famine.
The landscape flies past the window, a desolate blur. In the steadier distance the wind is tossing around a copse of almond trees, shaking loose a lavender blizzard of flowers whose haunting beauty the gun inhales.
We are somewhere in Anatolia, somewhere south of the Black Sea. I forget where. Somewhere horsemen ride the bald hills bareback.
Since you annihilated yourself with alcohol, the world has changed some, Jack. Rail cars fly by too fast to jump onto now, and the concept of The Highway is old to us. The highways themselves are new and wide and furious, and nobody will stop for us anymore.
Literature has fallen out of the mind of much of my generation. Poetry lies on the ground twitching and nictitating, not dying, but starving for attention. A new paradigm came heaving out of the sea at the end of the 20th century called the Internet. You would scarcely imagine what it is doing to us. Our veins have kissed and intertwined with it, and our living blood coils into its whirlpools and is swallowed up.
There is a USA you wrote about, Jack. I went searching for it and found it to have vanished. So I did what I thought you might do. I left the USA. I moved on to find its spirit elsewhere.
It did not take long to realize, once off the continent, that the world you helped build inside me was a world created, and that regardless of how much I attempted to make things fit inside that creation, it never would. The world I found elsewhere was too old and too mutilated and not at all like your fresh way of thinking.
This philosophy was understood by other hitchers I met, but those living stationary and poor in that old world often possessed something different, the thing it seemed you were trying to get at but failed—something like contentment. Although I later realized that was just an illusion, that there is no such thing as human contentment.
The driver hands the gun to the man in the passenger seat, who cocks the hammer.
I made a mistake with this ride, Jack. When it stopped and I poked my head in the window, something alerted me about the driver. He had tiny black eyes, like another set of nostrils in the forehead, and the mood that exhaled out of them was foreboding.
It was the child in the back seat, a boy of about 13, who made me assume things would be OK.
I will also admit that there was a time when I denied you, Jack, when I told people I hated Jack Kerouac because I felt others had stolen and misunderstood you, and ravaged everything I thought valuable with an indelicate, blind fanaticism.
When you grow up wanting to live furiously and dream madly and love freely and roar poetry at strangers and wander beyond the frontiers of society, there are those who will cackle at and shun you. And it is not easy. The sorrow of such a life inures you, isolates you. And sometimes you start believing that you really are psychotic, especially if you respect yourself and have others depending on you.
“Bak!” the driver shouts. He is staring at me through the mirror. The man holding the gun winks. “Bang,” he says.
This may be it, Jack.
If I could control time, if I could reverse this car and get out and walk backwards up the highway, and fly back from country to country as all my experiences were vacuumed out of me, if I could return to my home town in Oklahoma and shake your words from my head back onto pages, and close your book, and press play, and grow up and pursue a career and marry and procreate and rescue myself from the fate of being shot and rolled into a ditch thousands of miles from anyone I know for a few lira, I would not. And I hope that even if I survive to become ragged and weary of existence, and the age has moved beyond me, that I may never.
Perhaps I have allowed literature to become too powerful in my life. Even now I am noting how the driver wears a woman’s ring, and how he is missing a mouth-shaped chunk of his ear, so that I may put it in a story later.
But no. Literature is powerful. You knew that. You knew that literature would allow me to suck back the fire that guns steal and hide it in a kingdom impervious to bullets.
You are in that kingdom. The bones you made dance and lift whiskey rest deep underground, but long before my birth you refracted yourself into words, and those words have lacquered the inner tunnels of my mind. A few thousand words, light as vapor, but they have had the power to bring so much change to my world.
Comments from our finalist judge
The judge for the finalists in this contest was Lee Gutkind, founder-editor of
Creative Nonfiction and author of more than 20 books. His two new titles are You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Personal Essay to Immersion Journalism and Everything in Between and, with Pagan Kennedy, An Immense New Power to Heal: The Promise of Personalized Medicine. Web: leegutkind.com.
Here are his comments on the top essay.
“Dear Jack Kerouac” is first and foremost an adventure story, which compels the reader into the essay in two quick and powerful ways. First, it establishes the character and the situation: The writer is not only lost, but he is in trouble. A pistol, carbon gray, 9 mm, is pointed at his chest by a seemingly desperate, drunk bandit wanting money quickly—or else.
But the reader, drawn in, doesn’t find out immediately what is going to happen to the writer. The reader is in limbo, held at bay, which is exactly what the good creative-nonfiction writer needs to do: hook the reader, make the reader want something, in this case the rest of the story, the fate of the narrator.
But the writer/narrator has something more to say to the reader—the substance of the piece. It is a letter to the brilliant man who wrote On the Road and changed part of the culture of America and its literature, and changed the narrator at the same time. So the writer now has the opportunity to tell the reader all about who he is and who Kerouac is, and he does it in a very interesting manner—the letter.
This is exactly the idea and the purpose behind the best work in creative nonfiction. Think of the phrase itself: Creative is style, and nonfiction is substance. You use the style or the story to communicate or deliver to the reader the substance of the piece. Do you want to know if the writer lives or dies, is shot or saved? OK, but first let me tell you about how I got to this dangerous moment in time and how the great Kerouac led me here. That is what creative nonfiction is all about and this essay, “Dear Jack Kerouac,” captures it perfectly.
About David Joshua Jennings
David Joshua Jennings will receive $1,000 for his winning entry, a free 10-week creative-writing workshop offered online by Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and a one-year subscription to The Writer.
A 26-year-old fiction and travel writer from Oklahoma, Jennings has spent much of the last five years traveling to more than 50 countries and writing about his experiences. “I have supported myself,” he says, “by selling stories, winning contests, working as an editor, and not spending too much money.”
Jennings’ work has appeared in a variety of publications, including travel guides on Colombia and Venezuela. He has received a number of young-writers awards and his story “Roraima: Venezuela’s Lost World” was voted one of the top travel stories of 2010 by GoNomad.com.
Jennings was born and raised in Yukon, Okla., where, he says, “religion was like gravity and most everyone hunted and drove trucks. The main street was Garth Brooks Boulevard. People had wide lawns, and you could often tell what kind of people people were based on the condition of their lawn and the things that were in it. The image that emerges immediately when I think of Yukon is truckloads of families pouring out of a Walmart-sized church parking lot after Sunday service on their way to the buffet at Western Sizzlin.”
Of his formative roots, Jennings said, “I was seen as weird and antisocial because I read books and didn’t like to watch football. Such an environment makes the creative impulse invert and kernel up into an unseen and unexpressed place, but in this place creativity is not much drawn in any direction other than its own, and this has been a bit of a blessing.”
Jennings now lives in India, where he is working on a “creative-nonfiction novel” about Turkey and a short-story collection.
The second-place winner in this contest was Janet Jensen, of Logan, Utah, for her essay titled “Baking Day.” The third-place winner was Caitlin Leffel, of New York, for her essay titled “Learning to Adjust.” Both women will receive cash awards and other prizes.